The Station Agent

Posted on August 21, 2003 at 5:01 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke a lot; character gets drunk, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths (offscreen), some peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Fin (Peter Dinklage) was a part of a small community of train lovers in Hoboken. He had a job repairing model trains. And he attended gatherings of train chasers, who showed their home movies and talked about trains.

But then his friend and employer died and the store was closed. Fin inherits an abandoned train station in Newfoundland, New Jersey and he goes there to live.

Just outside the station is the world’s least busy snack stand, run by Joe (Bobby Cannavale) because his father, who owns it, is ill. Joe tries to get Fin to talk to him, but finally Fin explains that he just wants to be left alone. Joe has tried to make friends with Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) a reclusive artist, but made no progress.

Then Olivia almost runs Fin off the road — twice — and makes amends by bringing him a book and then a camera. And Joe tags along when Fin goes to watch a train. At first, Joe is incredulous that Fin can care so much about waiting to see a train go by, but when the train finally arrives, Joe is as overjoyed as if his team won the World Series. Joe and Olivia find themselves “walking the right of way” with Fin, and when Fin and Joe use the camera from Olivia to film a train, they take it to Olivia’s house to have dinner and show it to her.

Little by little, two people who thought they did not want to be with anyone and one who is desperate for almost any kind of interaction begin to be important to each other in a way that will matter to them more than they could have imagined.

Fin is also befriended by a little girl named Cleo (Raven Goodwin) and by Emily (Michelle Williams), the local librarian. When they need his help, he learns that he can do more than he thought, and that matters to him, too.

This movie is a quiet joy, with sensitive performances of breathtaking delicacy. Dinklage gives Fin a dignity and self-possession that makes his journey infinitely touching. Cannavale gives Joe a subtle yearning quality beneath the bluster. In one scene, some guys who would seem like natural companions for Joe come by to joke around and they invite him to play ball with him. Cannavale’s reaction shows us that he understands Joe far better than Joe understands himself. Goodwin (who was also remarkable in Lovely and Amazing) is marvelously natural as Cleo sees Finn for the first time and asks him what grade he is in. Clarkson, who won an acting award at Sundance, has the showiest and most under-written role, but she gives Olivia grace and heart. These characters will stay with you for a long time.

Parents should know that the movie has extremely strong language and sexual references, including out of wedlock pregnancies. Characters smoke marijuana, drink and smoke cigarettes a lot and one becomes drunk. There are some sad deaths (offscreen) and there some mild peril (no one hurt). The thoughtlessness and prejudice Fin experiences are sensitively portrayed and there is a lovely friendship that transcends age and race.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Olivia only could be friends with Joe after meeting Fin and what made each of the characters begin to want to be with each other. What surprised you about the characters? Why are trains so important to the movie? Why did Fin change his mind about speaking to Cleo’s class?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Inside Moves and Ordinary People.

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The Medallion

Posted on August 20, 2003 at 11:43 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense action violence, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Did I miss a meeting or wasn’t one of the great things about Jackie Chan that he didn’t need any special effects? Back in the day, Chan was his own special effect, and that was plenty special enough.

After all those years and broken bones, it isn’t surprising that he is ready to let the technology do some of the work for him. And it isn’t surprising that Chan sees some appeal in a story about a charm that can bestow eternal life and strength. But it isn’t as much fun.

In this movie, Chan plays Hong Kong cop Eddie Yang. A bad guy named Snakehead (Julian Sands) is after a medallion and the child who can give it the power to grant eternal life. Working with officers from Interpol (British comic actor Lee Evans as Watson and Clare Forlani as Nicole), Eddie chases after Snakehead and his henchmen, from Hong Kong to Ireland. Along the way, both Eddie and Snakehead get medallion-ized superpowers. It’s fun to see Jackie try out his new powers (only Jackie would come up with superpowers that allow him to feel all the pain when he gets injured before magically healing the wounds). But no amount of flying around or recovering from massive injuries will ever be as magical as seeing Jackie fight when he was at his best.

Jackie’s action scenes are still 90% of what this movie has to offer, and there are a couple of good ones, including an extended chase that is pretty exciting, even though it relies on wires for some of the best stunts. The rest is just dumb jokes (an extended double entendre exchange that has some of the Interpol cops thinking that Eddie and Watson are gay, some potty humor), a brief love interest, and the aforementioned special effects.

Parents should know that the movie includes extensive action violence (not very graphic), including a child in peril. There is brief strong language and double entendre humor.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether they would want to have — or to be able to give — the powers granted by the medallion. What would be the benefits and what would be the drawbacks?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of Chan’s better films, and a compliation of some of his best work in Jackie Chan: My Stunts.

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The School of Rock

Posted on August 18, 2003 at 1:54 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character abuses alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense scenes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

If there was ever someone born to portray the true spirit of rock and roll, it is Jack Black. In this movie, that is what they needed, and that is just what he does.

Black plays Dewey Finn, a musician who doesn’t just live for rock. He barely acknowledges that there is anything else. Like the music he loves, Dewey is loud, immature, messy, self-absorbed, passionate, incapable of complying with any authority, rule, or attempt at civilization, and just about irresistable. Dewey’s love for the music is so pure and so complete that it is impossible for him to imagine that everyone might not support him.

That is why he is astonished when he is fired by his band and when his best friend Ned (screenwriter Mike White) tells him that if he does not start paying rent, he will have to move out. Ned was once a rocker with a group called Maggots of Death, but now he is a substitute teacher with a girlfriend and tells Dewey it is time to grow up.

So, when Dewey intercepts a call from Principal Mullins (Joan Cusack) offering Ned a substitute teacher position for fifth graders at a posh prep school, he accepts and shows up pretending to be Ned.

Of course he thinks he will just snooze through the classes and of course his students will be appalled (but also a little bit thrilled) by his sense of anarchy. When he tears down the neatly lettered class list of stars and demerits, they are stunned. They look around as though waiting for lightning to strike, a sort of ultimate demerit. But fifth graders are just young enough to trust their teacher and just old enough to be enthralled when he tells them that their secret new project will be to spend the entire school day creating a rock band. Once he assures them that this will impress the admissions office at Harvard, they are all on board.

Soon, everyone in the class is a part of the band, with guitar wizard Zach, back-up singers, roadies, groupies, and a stylist. The kids learn something about the history of rock, something about music, and quite a bit about expressing themselves. And Dewey learns something about what it really means to be part of a band.

This is by far the most accessible and conventional film from director Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Dazed and Confused) and White (Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl), neither of whom are known for heartwarming, feel-good movies. But that is what this is, a sort of To Sir With Love crossed with This is Spinal Tap. Black is enormously entertaining and the kids are terrific.

Parents should know that the movie includes some strong language, alcohol abuse, and drug references. A character loosens up when she gets tipsy. An unconscionable lie is portrayed as a creative solution to a problem. The overall theme of jettisoning schoolwork for rock and roll may also be a concern.

Families who see this movie should talk about how much Dewey loves rock and roll. Why is it so important to him? What does it allow him to express? What is the most important thing he learned from the kids, and what is the most important thing they learned from him?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Commitments and This is Spinal Tap and they will enjoy Black’s performance as a devoted music fan in High Fidelity (all for mature audiences). For information about Black’s own rock band, Tenacious D, check here. Families might also like to see some very different movies about music teachers who touch the lives of students, like Music of the Heart and Mr. Holland’s Opus. And they might enjoy a very different story about a music teacher who begins by being a con man, The Music Man.

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Lost in Translation

Posted on August 16, 2003 at 10:09 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Theme of Americans coping with another culture in Tokyo
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) has written and directed a fascinating film that is less about a story than about the sights, the feelings, the moments, and the especially the connection between two Americans adrift in Tokyo.

Bill Murray plays Bob, an American movie star who is in Tokyo to make $2 million by appearing in whiskey ads. Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World), in her first adult role, plays Charlotte, an unemployed young wife who is in Tokyo with her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer who is there on assignment, taking pictures of a rock group.

Everything in Japan makes Bob and Charlotte feel out of place. Bob towers over everyone he meets. He would be befuddled by the elaborate courtesy of the whiskey company executives and odd requests of the people making the ads if only he cared about any of it. Meanwhile, his wife sends faxes and Federal Express packages with questions about decorating.

Charlotte tries staying in the hotel and she tries sightseeing. But she doesn’t know what she should be doing and she seems to have forgotten how to feel anything.

Neither Bob nor Charlotte can get to sleep, and their bleary disorientation contrasts with the sharpness and sensory overload of the sights and sounds of Tokyo. But for both of them, the sense of being out of focus goes beyond sleep deprivation. It is not just their brains that are out of focus; it is their hearts and souls as well.

Bob and Charlotte have a lot of trouble connecting to other people, literally and spiritually. They have truncated phone calls with people they clearly care about but they cannot say so. Both are in transition. Bob is a once-successful movie star whose career is tapering off. He once felt close to his wife, but her preoccupation with their home and children has created a distance between them and he does not seem to know how to talk to her or to their children. Charlotte does not seem to fit into her husband’s life of taking pictures of rock groups and movie stars. But she does not seem to fit into her own life either. She was a philosophy major at Yale, then she tried to write, but that did not work and she does not know what to do now.

Somehow, Bob and Charlotte connect to each other in a way they do not understand. But they do understand that it is precious to them to feel that way — or just to feel.

And they — and Coppola — treat that feeling with touching delicacy. She takes him to a nightclub and they sing karaoke. He takes her to the emergency room so she can get her toe x-rayed. They do not exchange life stories or discover that they loved the same poem in high school or have any of the usual movie indicators that they are soul-mates. They just understand each other a little and like each other a little more. And that is a very nice thing to observe.

The performances by Murray and Johansson are tender delights. Anna Faris (Scary Movie) is deliciously perfect as a starlet who has had too many people tell her how interesting she is. Coppola is a master of moments and details, and here they add up to a story that is beautifully bittersweet.

Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language, nudity, drinking, smoking and drug use, and sexual references and situations, including adultery.

Families who watch this movie should talk about why Bob and Charlotte were drawn to each other. What did they have in common? What was most different about them? Would you have wanted them to say something more to each other than they did?

Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate The Virgin Suicides (mature themes), also directed by Coppola and featuring Ribisi. It is flawed but shows Coppola’s exceptional ability to evoke a sense of time and place and superb music selections. They might also like to watch Brief Encounter and The April Fools.

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My Boss’s Daughter

Posted on August 13, 2003 at 6:14 pm

F
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character deals drugs, a lot of beer drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence and gross humor
Diversity Issues: Racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic jokes
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

In “My Boss’s Daughter,” Tom (Ashton Kutcher) and Lisa (Tara Reid) bond over hating the same movie. I predict that everyone unfortunate enough to see this atrocity will similarly bond over the experience as only fellow disaster survivors can.

It isn’t just that it is stupid. It isn’t just that it is offensive. It isn’t just that it is not funny. It is all of the above plus an appalling use of talented people like Terence Stamp (who has his pants pulled down to show his naked rear end and gets his face covered with gutter sludge and pelted with beer bottles), Michael Madsen (who responds when Tom threatens him with a gun by peeing on him and then on just about everything else), Molly Shannon (who has to wear hot pants and call a black man “colored”), and David Zucker (of Airplane) who directed the whole mess and then put his real name on it. If ever there was a legitimate reason to hide behind “Alan Smithee,” the legendary pseudonym of directors humiliated by the end result, this is it. In fact, everyone associated with this movie should appear under a pseudonym, and that includes Carmen Electra.

Tom is a shy clerk at a publishing firm who has trouble asserting himself and expressing anger. He wants to get a job in the creative department but is so intimidated by the tyrannical CEO, Jack Taylor (Stamp), that he has never had the nerve to apply for it. To complicate things further, Tom has a crush on Jack’s daughter, Lisa (Tara Reid), but is too shy to let her know.

Tom thinks that Lisa has asked him on a date, but in reality, she has asked him to pet-sit her father’s owl, OJ, so she can go to a party with her boyfriend. Jack warns Tom that if anything goes wrong, he will not just be fired but painfully killed. This of course means that everything will go wrong.

The set-up is just fine (think of The Cat in the Hat and many wonderful screwball comedies). The problem is that not one thing that happens in the next hour onscreen is interesting, funny, or original. It is just one long cringe-inducing disgust-fest.

Just to show you that I am not being overly picky or politically sensitive, let me provide some examples of what is intended to pass for humor in this miserable waste of time:

1. The owl is named after OJ Simpson (“The murderer?” “No, the football player!”) So, when the owl flies out of the house and Tom yells, “OJ’s loose!” bystanders scream and scatter.

2. A girl’s bleeding head wound is played for laughs as Tom frantically tries to keep her sticky, gooey blood from getting on Jack’s furniture. Ultimately, she leans back against a bag of Cheetos, many of which stick to the wound when she gets up.

3. A character calls another character “Jew!” for no particular reason except random insult (neither character is Jewish) and this is supposed to be funny. It is also supposed to be funny when one character asks another “Are you retarded?” Other jokes about gays, blacks, a blind quadriplegic, attempted suicide, an apparent seizure, and rape are similarly humor-free. So are jokes about the piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear that Mike Tyson bit off. Funny? Uh, no!

In fact, if you made a list of every single thing in the world that is not funny, you’d have this movie.

Parents should know that the movie is disgusting and offensive, with racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic jokes, sexual situations and references, strong language, drinking, and drug dealing. There is comic peril and violence, including an apparent seizure after ingesting a sedative and alcohol. Characters are threatened with guns and a gun is fired.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Jack learned about being a parent and whether anyone in this movie learned anything about how to pick better material in the future.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the much better Airplane.

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